Photo credit: Carla J Roth

Luke 24. 36b – 58; Acts 3. 12-19; Psalm 4.

“They were startled and terrified… Jesus said to them, why are you frightened and why do doubts arise in your hearts?”

AT THE VERY core of Christian believing is the conviction that – despite persistent appearances to the contrary – death, decay, loss, predation, tragedy and suffering do not have the final word. When we stand for humanity, compassion, peace and justice against the forces of death-dealing and oppression in this world, our appeal to the God of Life is not ultimately in vain. There can and will be completion, restoration and fulfilment.

In the New Testament that hope takes a distinctly substantial, personal, expressive and differently-embodied form (spoken of as “resurrection”), even as death continues to divide us, and as both the innocent and those who resist injustice go on being crucified in our world. The gospel trajectory and appeal is angled uncompromisingly towards the rescuing (as in remaking) power of God. That is, God’s ability to bestow or re-endow life in a way that is beyond both our capacity and our imagining, of which Christ’s ‘risen life’ is the first-fruits.

But, as with the early followers of Jesus, our daily human experience nevertheless remains rooted painfully and inescapably in the midst of a story of limitations, contradictions and dead ends, rather than in the decisive realisation of a hoped-for liberation and transformation of ourselves and our world: a “new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21).

Perhaps that is why I still find Easter Sunday the most difficult day of the church year. With the way the world is right now – with the pain and brokenness we see around us all too clearly, not least in the church itself – “hallelujah!” can stick in my throat. It sometimes feels too much like forced jollity on the Titanic. If you sometimes feel like that too, this gospel reading (Luke 24. 36b – 58) is for you.

Even in the presence of the risen Christ, the disciples were, says Luke, “startled and terrified”. They feared that what they were looking at was a ghost, a shadow, an illusion. Jesus’s message to his troubled followers is three simple words. “Peace be with you”. But what they experience is something quite different. Disturbance, fear, uncertainty. In the joy they were supposed to be feeling they were still (verse 41) “disbelieving and wondering”, we are told.  Jesus responds in two ways. He shows them his hands and feet, and he sits down to eat with them.

First, the Risen One is identified not as an unassailable figure of triumph and victory, but as one still scarred. He is, like them and us, one of the ‘walking wounded’, for whom the realities of suffering and death are not forgotten, bypassed and avoided in the promise of new life that stands in front of them, and which is – weirdly – rather terrifying. It is terrifying, I would suggest, because of what it begins to demand of us, based on the recognition that, in this life, the gift does not take the wound away. On the contrary, the gift of incorruptible life (which is what resurrection signifies) will only truly change us when we accept its challenge. That means to live with Christ, as those incorporated into his body by baptism, as he goes on absorbing wounding and suffering  precisely – and this is absolutely crucial – by refusing to inflict wounding, suffering and death on others, as gods and despots are apt to do.

This is exactly what the cross is about. God’s reversal and refusal of death-dealing, wrong-doing, hatred and revenge. This includes refusing to view the other (whoever “the other” is to us) as a threat to be eliminated rather than (in T. S. Eliot’s words) “a mystery to be loved”. As Melkite Catholic Archbishop Elias Chacour – himself both a citizen and Israel and an Arab – has said, that is precisely what it needed, alongside a politics of embrace rather than exclusion, in Israel-Palestine today. Not slaughter and occupation (resulting in the horrors of Gaza), but a recognition by Jews and Palestinians alike that they are both deeply wounded peoples. The tragedy of this is that they are instead trapped endlessly in seeing each other as a threat – rather than being able to recognise their own wounds in the wounds of the other, so that they (and we) can begin to find mutual justice and healing together. This is what gazing on the wounds of Christ means. It is, simultaneously, what risen life means: learning how to be the walking wounded on a journey towards life which is either for all of us or none of us.

Notice, correspondingly, that in the varied resurrection appearances (of which there are eight recorded in the New Testament), the risen Christ is never alone. He is always experienced with and through others, often despite their fear, scepticism and uncertainty. Unlike the western art tradition, which usually portrayals the resurrection as being about an individual, in eastern art the risen Christ invariably brings a multitude (often the whole human race) with him, leading people out of hades, connecting them across the ages, marshalling a great company of saints, sharing food with all those around him. Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan has illustrated and explored this contrast wonderfully in his book with Sarah Sexton Crossan, Resurrecting Easter: How the West Lost and the East Kept the Original Easter Vision (HarperOne, 2018).

This corporate imagery reflects the idea that resurrection is fundamentally about life lived beyond the defining power of death as life shared. We are not rescued alone, but together. And the sacrament of this is a communal meal, such as that which we partake in ritually as the Eucharist, but potentially every opportunity we have to share the very stuff of life with others and to re-recognise each other and Christ anew in doing that. This, of course, is precisely what happens in the story that immediately precedes today’s reading from Luke – two defeated disciples encountering a stranger on the road to Emmaus. The point of recognition for them is not Jesus’s face, but his transcendent presence with them in the act breaking of bread.

So life shared (through food, kindness, consolation, solidarity – in myriad practical ways) is always the place where the shape of a new and transformative God-given possibility makes itself present and known. It is where Christ is found again and again. This is risen life. In its backward light, our lives are re-narrated. In Luke 24 and in our reading from Acts, that is also what happens. Religious history (indeed the whole of history) is re-read through the lens and promise of ‘risen life’.

As a side note, Acts 3 is not just an example of this but also a warning: because Peter, in his zeal to embrace a gospel for all and to reach out to the excluded Samaritans and gentiles appears to do something very dangerous, which is to absolve one group of people by effectively blaming another (the Jews) – albeit in this case with the qualifier that they did not know what they were doing. But it takes the often rather misrepresented Paul to point out that in Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free… but a new humanity reconciled in the wounded and risen body which we, today, right now, are invited to be part of.

And there is the rub, the challenge, the difficulty, the terror. “They were startled and terrified.” For the opposite of life is not just death, but paralysis and (in the face of the lesions of the world, of personal and collective bereavement, defeat and loss) inertia and fear. Life is dynamism, vibrancy, journeying, possibility. Anti-life is being immobilised, blocked, dis-abled, dis-eased, stuck, frozen. When that is how how we feel, new life is not always joyful. It is discomforting and disturbing.

One of the poems that has impacted me most profoundly over the years was penned by the late Julia Esquivel, a Guatemalan writer, theologian and human rights activist. It was against a backdrop of terror – including the unleashing of death squads in Guatemala by the military dictator Rios Montt (who was, incidentally, an evangelical Christian) against peasants, workers and indigenous people in 1982/3. The poem is called They Have Threatened Us With Resurrection. It has been read at many funerals across Latin America. It is often read to remember those who have been unjustly killed, and those who have followed in their footsteps. It has been read to remember Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was gunned down by a death squad in El Salvador as he was saying mass in 1980. At the funerals of such martyrs people will often raise their fists and say defiantly of and to the departed, Presente! … present. As these excerpts from Esquivel’s powerful poem put it:

What keeps us from sleeping
is that they have threatened us with Resurrection!
Because every evening
though weary of killings,
an endless inventory
yet we go on loving life
and do not accept their death!

They have threatened us with Resurrection
Because we have felt their inert bodies,
and their souls penetrated ours
doubly fortified,
because in this marathon of Hope,
there are always others to relieve us
who carry the strength
to reach the finishing line
which lies beyond death.

They have threatened us with Resurrection
because they will not be able to take away from us
their bodies,
their souls,
their strength,
their spirit,
nor even their death
and least of all their life.

Because they live
today, tomorrow, and always
in the streets baptized with their blood,
in the air that absorbed their cry,
in the jungle that hid their shadows,
in the river that gathered up their laughter,
in the ocean that holds their secrets,
in the craters of the volcanoes,
Pyramids of the New Day,
which swallowed up their ashes.

They have threatened us with Resurrection
because they are more alive than ever before,
because they transform our agonies
and fertilize our struggle,
because they pick us up when we fall,
because they loom like giants
before the crazed [dictator’s] fear.

Resurrection, in short, entails wholesale regime change; the disruption and unravelling of the current deathly order. It unveils what theologian Walter Wink has called ‘the myth of redemptive violence’ (the idea that killing for good, or for God, is necessary and efficacious). It announces the end of all systems of oppression and destruction. In that sense, it inaugurates and celebrates ‘the end of the world’ as we know it – not by means of death, but by the gift of unrestricted life, a non-violent apocalypse. That means release for captives, restoration for those condemned to die, defeat for arms-bearers and arms dealers, dispossession for the insatiably greedy, the collapse of empire, and healing and wholeness for all. This is what the gospel tells us and means, in so many ways. Resurrection is political, corporate, and ultimately cosmic in scope (as Romans 8 reminds us), as well as deeply intimate, personal, interpersonal and communal. It signals the final defeat of ‘powerful power’ by weak power. In the words of Zechariah 4.6, “Not by might, not by force, but by my Spirit, says the Sovereign One of Hosts.”

This is the long hoped for vindication Psalm 4 sighs for. But this risen life demands nothing less than our whole being in discovering whether and how it is true. It really is all or nothing. It is terrifying. But we are not alone. We are in a great company of those who seek the path of life. We are the walking wounded, alongside Jesus. Together, we believe. May the God who alone can break open our tombs, help our unbelief.


© Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia. This is the text of an address given at St James the Less Episcopal Church, Leith, Edinburgh, on 24 April 2024. His book Against the Religion of Power: Telling a Different Christian Story will be published later this year, and his Ekklesia columns can be found here.